Monday, January 24, 2011

An Interview with Jacqueline Riding on Mid-Georgian Britain

Randall Stephens

Jacqueline Riding is a historian and consultant who is completing her PhD in 18th-century British art and culture. She served as the curator at the Theatre Museum, the Guards Museum, the Tate, the Palace of Westminster, and was founding Director of the Handel House Museum in London. Her Mid-Georgian Britain, “the latest addition to the growing Living Histories series, charts the growth of the empire and looks at the growing importance of London as a capital city where the rich and poor rubbed shoulders. Jacqueline Riding creates a vivid portrait of the daily reality of life for a middle-class family in this age of growing affluence.”* Ever wonder what life was like in an 18th-century city? How did people eat, work, and play? What did they think about the world around them? Riding's concise, immensely entertaining book gives a snapshot of an amazing, vanished world.

Randall Stephens: Your book, Mid-Georgian Britain is a readable, fascinating account of life in the 18th century. Did your own work as a curator and scholar of art and culture influence how you composed the book?

Jacqueline Riding: Thank you very much. The basic chapter structure and length were set out by the publishers, although I did change a few of the headings. For example I think “Charity and Citizenship” is a key theme of the period and I have done a lot of work on the Foundling Hospital (my PhD is on an artist, Joseph Highmore, who donated a history painting to the charity). So I changed the chapter heading accordingly. The tight word length meant I had to be disciplined and the text feels pithy and quite fast-paced, which I like. It was important to stop worrying that so much inevitably gets left out. Even so, some of the themes were out of my comfort zone (dental pelicans anyone?!). So I learned something new too. Word length permitting, I was keen to show contrasts and find unusual facts or opinions rather than trot out the usual Georgian suspects. Having said that I could not resist Dr. Johnson. I think my background in curatorship means I think of an historical period in 3D—a case in point was recreating Handel’s house in Mayfair. I believe it is important not to be confined by a particular academic discipline, to study an historical period in the round. One of the benefits of being an art historian is that you know your way around a picture library, so I was very eager to get really good quality images. Ultimately, if I gave an interesting snap shot of the period, which encourages people to look further and even visit some of the locations mentioned, then I've done my job.

Stephens: Could you say something about how the London of the early 21st century differs from the London of, say, the 1750s?

Riding: Well, if they thought it was big in the mid-eighteenth century, they should see it now . . .

Stephens: Throughout Mid-Georgian Britain you quote a host of contemporary authors. Do you have a favorite character/author from that period?

Riding: It would have to be William Hogarth. He’s quite simply a hero, a real London bruiser with a heart made of putty.

Stephens: You include sections in the book on “Love and Sex, Marriage and Family,” “Home and Neighbourhood,” “Work,” “Food and Drink,” and more. What did you find most interesting to research and write about?

Riding: As I say, most of the headings were provided by the publisher although “Love and Sex . . .” was one of my modifications—partly so I had the excuse to illustrate the syphilitic skull and condom. When you are asked to rattle through a thirty-year period covering as many bases as possible you start to realize how little you know or at least how relatively limited your expertise is. No one is an expert on “the eighteenth century”—it’s just not possible. Humbling but true.

Stephens: Are you working on any projects now that you can tell us about?

Riding: I am indeed. For anyone interested in mid-Georgian art and charity I have an article in Art History Journal titled “The mere relation of the suffering of others’: Joseph Highmore, History Painting and Charity.” I have an article coming out in April’s History Today on Charles Edward Stuart and I am also writing a narrative history on the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 for Bloomsbury Publishing (eta 2013).

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I'm looking forward to Riding's work--It is great to hear from those who shape the way many people "see" their history. In my own teaching I could use some ideas on how to create a more holistic picture for my students of how people lived their daily lives. This was a great interview. Thanks!